Noodle Tree, a ramen restaurant in San Antonio, Texas, was defaced with racist graffiti after chef and owner Mike Nguyen criticized the rollback of the state's mask mandate on CNN and said that he would continue to require that people wear masks when visiting the restaurant.
Nguyen, who discovered the vandalism on Sunday morning, told TODAY Food that the graffiti included phrases like "No masks," "Kung flu," "Commie" and "I hope you die."
"They wrote on my table, 'Go back to China,' even though I'm not of Chinese descent," Nguyen said, adding that he's also received other death threats in recent days. "I was really upset and shocked that it actually went this far. Some of the wording, it hit really close to home. … The one that angered me the most was the one that said, ‘I hope you die.’ Just because of my opinion, my views, doesn’t mean you can wish harm or death upon me."
During his appearance on CNN, Nguyen said that Texas governor Greg Abbott's decision to drop the mask mandate was "selfish and cowardly," and he predicted that he would be targeted because of the interview.
"We've seen a lot of attacks against Asian Americans, and that's a huge concern for me," he said on CNN, referencing a nationwide rise in anti-Asian hate crimes that have been linked to the start of the pandemic. He told TODAY that he had had some issues with customers before this but had not experienced vandalism or death threats until now.
Nguyen, who is currently undergoing treatment for lymphoma, said he understands the desire to reopen the state but thinks that precautions like masks should remain in place until more people can be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
The restaurant's website states that guests who will not wear a mask can dine on the restaurant's outdoor patio. Guests who enter the building are required to wear a mask.
On social media, Nguyen wrote that his statement "wasn't political."
"I thought it was a little too soon (to be completely open) but I was OK with it. 75% would've been perfect," Nguyen said. "People believe that I'm against opening Texas, which is not true. My thing was, 'We need protection if we're going to do that.'"
While Nguyen said the vandalism was "enraging," the community response to the situation was "powerful." Guests helped him clean the graffiti and other local businesses rallied around Noodle Tree.
"(The first guest) was visibly shaken and upset and she was like, 'Hey, I just ordered food, I'm waiting. Do you have another brush? I'm going to help you,'" Nguyen said. "At this point in time, I hadn't been able to talk to somebody about what had happened … With her I was able to actually talk and vent a little bit."
In the end, more than two dozen people helped clean the restaurant, allowing Noodle Tree to open only an hour later than usual.
"This is a very powerful thing," Nguyen said. "Am I surprised by it? Absolutely not. As Texans, this is who we are, this is what we do. We're a tight-knit community, especially going through the hard times, and this showed that we're not going to tolerate this kind of behavior, this hatred, this racism. We're not going to do it."
"The people, the persons who did this, whatever their goal was, it backfired on them," Nguyen continued. "It didn't divide us. All it did was bring it together and make us stronger."